A question often asked of those who argue for infant baptism is, “What good does it do the infant?” Those who ask this question generally think they have nailed the defender, as there is no obvious benefit to the infant.
The infant hardly seems to be aware of what is transpiring, let alone being aware of any benefit. Many who were baptized as infants, coming to faith as adults, desire to be baptized as adults, rationalizing that their baptism didn’t mean anything to them.
Such an approach to baptism, however, fails to recognize the true character of baptism, and fails also to recognize the real benefit of the rite to the infant. As to its true character, baptism (infant or adult) is not a public profession of a faith in Christ already acted upon. This view of baptism is readily drawn from a mistaken examination of Acts 2, which is then imposed on other texts having to do with baptism. The main problems with this understanding of Acts 2 are that first, it makes the mistake of drawing doctrinal conclusions from narrative texts; and second, it fails to recognize the transitional character of the situation in Acts 2.
Baptism rather is a sign of the covenant. That baptism is a covenant sign follows from the identification of circumcision and baptism (Col2:11-12), the continuity of the covenant in the church with the covenant with Abraham (Gal 3:9-14), and the identification of circumcision as a covenantal sign in Gen 17. Baptism is thus a sign upon the recipient that he or she is recognized as a member of the covenant people of God. (There is obviously more to it than this, but for the purposes of this short exposition, this is adequate.)
If baptism is the New Testament equivalent of circumcision, and thus a covenant sign, we must look to the Old Testament and its discussion of covenant signs in order to determine what the advantage there is for the infant who is baptized.
The first covenant sign mentioned in the Old Testament is the rainbow (Gen 9:8-17). In this passage, we learn that the covenant sign is not for man only. Certainly it is understood that man benefits from seeing the rainbow, and remembering that God has established this as a sign that he will not again destroy the earth by a flood. But the emphasis of the text itself is on the importance to God of the sign. “When I bring the clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh” (Gen 9:14-15). That is, the sign functions for God.
The same thing occurs in regard to the second covenant sign discussed in the Old Testament (circumcision—Genesis 17). “My covenant shall be in your flesh as an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people. He has broken my covenant” (Gen 17:13-14). That is, if God does not see the sign of the covenant in the child, he considers that child no member of the covenant people.
This understanding is what lies behind the otherwise cryptic passage in Exodus 4, regarding Moses on his return to Egypt (vss 24-26). Moses was being sent to lead the covenant people out of Egypt, but he had not obeyed God in having his own sons circumcised. Thus his own sons were cut off from the covenant people. So Zipporah performed the circumcision, laying the foreskin at Moses’ feet, and calling him a bridegroom of blood. The involvement of Zipporah was probably due to her having opposed the circumcision in the first place. Thus also her exclamation to Moses, “You are a bridegroom of blood.”
God takes the covenant sign seriously. Thus a child, who would otherwise be a member of the covenant people, God considers him to be no part of the covenant people if he does not have the sign of the covenant. So a child of believing parents who is not baptized is considered by God to be none of his. It matters not how much care the parents may lavish on the child, or how much they may teach him the Bible. They have disobeyed God on one point, and their children are cut off.
The advantage to the child is thus two-fold. First, God considers that child a member of the visible church. Thus, according to his promise, he blesses all the parents’ efforts on behalf of the child. This is not to say that God may not bless the efforts of parents who are disobedient in the matter of the covenant sign. But such parents have no promise from God that he will bless in their labors.
[Just as an aside, it is curious to me that Presbyterians actually make more out of baptism than Baptists do. Baptists apparently, for example, see no problem with repeated baptisms, as long as the subject of the repeated baptism considers that he wasn’t really converted when he was first baptized. Second, Presbyterians talk about improving our baptism (LC Q 167), making everyone’s baptism important to us, whereas the Baptist sees baptism as of real importance only for the professing believer being baptized.]
Benjamin Shaw, Ph.D., Assoc. Prof. of Hebrew & Old Testament, Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Greenville, S.C.